Nubian demands for the right to relocate to their historic lands on the banks of the Nile—admittedly now on the banks of Lake Nasser, south of the Aswan High Dam—took a new, and more violent turn last week. Sparked by the new spirit of protests in Egypt since the revolution early this year, some Nubians are getting increasingly strident in their demands.
On Sunday last week, protesters continued repeating demands that they have made off and on since they were relocated to Aswan and Kom Ombo when the High Dam was constructed in the early 1960s—that the resettlement communities they have lived in for nearly 50 years are inadequate. Many then wanted, and their descendants still want, to relocate to Nubian communities located above the lake. They hope to be able to recreate a life based, as their old one was, on fishing and farming. The protest last week has been the fourth since the revolution.
They were angered by a planned visit of Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to Aswan, since he expected to hold a closed meeting with only 30 chosen representatives of the Nubian community. The protesters demanded an open meeting with him. They staged a sit in at the garden of the headquarters of the Governate of Aswan. They demanded that the Governor, Mustafa El-Sayad, be removed. They accused the governor of making false promises and insulting them. In essence, they feel he ignores their demands.
The protest turned violent. Some people entered the building and torched it. They blocked traffic outside while those inside trashed the offices of the governor. The Nubians have been requesting—demanding—a cabinet decree so they could move to new communities along the lake shore. They also want to have their own representatives in the Egyptian parliament, a request that has not yet been implemented.
Protesters continued to burn tires and prevented fire engines from reaching the governor’s office building. Several employees suffered from smoke inhalation before military police could evacuate everyone.
The news caught the attention of Egyptian bloggers, some of whom commented in English. One, named Zeinobia, indicated that she learned the protesters only torched the building after the police reacted violently to their garden sit in. She decried the media focus on the burning building, and claimed that news reports have ignored decades of government refusals to act on the Nubian demands.
She did add, however, that the Aswan Governor claims the 30 Nubian representatives were chosen by the Nubians themselves. He says that his government is committed to building eight Nubian villages on Lake Nasser. Zeinobia adds that she fully supports the Nubian demands, which she sees as completely reasonable and best for all the Egyptian people.
The protests continued the following day, as demonstrators blocked highways in the Aswan area and continued to sit in before the Governor’s office. Also, they threw rocks at the building. They maintained their protests for three days.
There is little doubt that the rioting caught the attention of the Egyptian media and public. An opinion piece written by Gamal Nkrumah, published in Al-Ahram’s weekly online magazine for September 8 – 14, makes several suggestions. The author argues that the shoreline of the lake has receded over the years, so it makes good sense for the Nubians to start moving back to lands along the river that they were forced to leave in the 1960s. Some may of course wish to stay in Aswan or Kom Ombo, but others will want to relocate. They should be encouraged and supported.
Mr. Nkrumah writes that the Nubian protests point to “a need to encourage national and local authorities to see the development of Nubia as an opportunity for reconciliation and peaceful coexistence rather than something to be warded off at all costs. Nubians demand exclusive rights to their ancestral [lands], as well they should,” he suggests. The anticipation among the Nubians is of course fueled by the spirit of change that all Egyptians now cherish.
The article in the weekly magazine quotes Haggag Oudul, a prominent author and frequent spokesperson for the Nubian cause. He told the magazine that the government of ousted President Mubarak had repeated lies about the Nubians, telling the rest of Egypt that they were only interested in separating themselves from the nation. The government said these things to alienate moderate Nubians and to incite suspicion and hatred among ordinary Egyptians, he argues.
“I am an Alexandrian, born and bred in Alexandria even though I am ethnically Nubian. Egypt is my land of birth. There is no contradiction between me being both Nubian and Alexandrian and Egyptian. I have multiple identities and they are not conflicting or contradictory,” Oudul told the magazine. The magazine interviewed numerous Nubians during the week of protests and concluded that they are not at all interested in secession. But they want better representation and more recognition of their rights.
Oudul described the way other Egyptians are moving into their communities, but the Nubians want to retain their own ancient language and customs. He said the Nubian struggle is political, but it is also economic and cultural. “We demand our civil rights and liberties, including our right to speak and be educated in our own language,” he said. “Nubians are renowned for their hospitality,” he added.
Mr. Nkrumah, the journalist, concluded that Nubians just want recognition and respect as an ancient Egyptian society, one which is directly descended from the Pharaohs. He argued it is hypocritical to bring tourists to see the ruins of pharaohs when the original Egyptians, the Nubians, are living as outcasts in poverty.